September 21, 2006

Mercy Associate Pilgrimage - Ireland 2006: From Coolock to Baggot Street and Beyond

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COOLOCK: Our Pilgrimage to some of the original Foundations made by Catherine McAuley began at Coolock. It is not surprising that our Pilgrimage began at Coolock, as it did for Catherine, in the very place which enabled her through the financial generosity of Mr Callaghan and the spiritual enrichment she received as she read and pondered on the words of the Bible with Mrs Callaghan. Today, this pondering, this sharing, this enabling continues in Coolock. Catherine's association with Coolock began in 1803 when she went there to live with William and Catherine Callaghan, a wealthy Quaker couple. It was a source of great joy for us to know that two novices are soon to be Professed. It must be a joy to Catherine to know that young women continue to follow in her footsteps. Did Catherine ever dream that the house that provided her own initial formation would be a house of formation today?

In order to help realise her plans to better the lot of the many poor children and young women in the Dublin of her day, Catherine sold Coolock and leased a property on the corner of Baggot and Herbert Street. Coolock passed through several hands including the then Governor of the Bank of Ireland. In 1955 the Sisters of Mercy bought it back and used the rooms as classrooms until a new school was built in 1960. Between 1960 and 1963 the house was extensively renovated. On the 23rd March 1963 a new community took up residence in Catherine's old home, bringing her journey full circle.

BOOTERSTOWN: St Anne's, Booterstown, opened on 26th July 1838. A committee of wealthy gentlemen, set up to help the poor of the area, invited Catherine to take over this work, especially as a typhus epidemic had left several orphans in need of care. Land and money were donated by the Hon Sidney Herbert for the building of a Convent and school. Sick Sisters from Baggot Street also convalesced in Booterstown. Catherine herself often stayed there and novices were brought there for outings, availing of the new steam train.

In Booterstown, it was good to have time to savour the peace and tranquillity of the large garden where Catherine herself and her companions would have walked and where the orphaned children, victims of cholera, played and where the sick Sisters recuperated. The highlight of the visit was Sister Magdalena’s sharing of the story of Catherine and the early years of the Sisters in Booterstown.

WEXFORD: Wexford was our next stop. On the 8th December 1840 four Sisters - Mary Teresa Kelly, Mary Gertrude Kinsella, Mary Aloysius Redmond and Mary Brigid Hacket - set out from the Carlow foundation to go to Wexford at the request of the Parish Priest. Today, such a journey could take an hour. However in those days travel was much slower, usually by horse drawn coach. However on 8th December, particularly difficult conditions resulted in an accident along the way. The willingness of the coachman to go for help in nearby Enniscorthy made the completion of the journey possible.

Fr. James Lucey, Parish Priest, wanted to establish a Convent in the town to offer education to the poor and to provide care for the many sick and dying. He provided a house for the Sisters, but the winter was very severe, with water freezing and with very little heat. However, as in so many other places, local help saw them through. The main ministry of the Sisters was caring for the orphans, education and visitation. The Sisters are still present in the town today carrying on the work of mercy. Nothing remains of the original Convent but the spirit lives on. A new Convent was opened in 1986. We visited the Sisters’ Cemetery where we sang the Suscipe.

St Maries of the Isle, Cork: Catherine McAuley along with five companions - Sisters Mary Clare Moore, Josephine Ward, Vincent Deasy, Teresa White and Anastasia McGawley - arrived in Cork City on the steamer "Hercules" on 6th July 1837 to make a foundation. They were escorted to Rutland Street by Father O'Connor, where they were to live and work for the next fifteen years. We were taken to Rutland Street where a plaque marks the spot where Catherine and her Sisters began their Mercy Mission. Once a fashionable quarter, Rutland Street in 1837, had little of its former elegance. The house itself was a gloomy, sombre building. However, the Sisters began immediately to visit the poor of the parish and soon they became known as the "sick poor order". They also began a Pension School in a large room in the house in 1838.

On 2nd December 1850, Bishop William Delaney laid the foundation stone of a new Convent named "St. Maries of the Isle." A generous contribution was made by a Ms. Barbara Gould towards the building and the plans included a House of Mercy, a National School and an Orphanage. Gothic in style, the new Convent was described as "one of the most beautiful ornaments of the ancient city of Cork". The Sisters moved to their new Convent on 2 October 1852. We were greatly impressed by the vastness of the Convent, of its broad and long cloisters.

In our visit to St Maries of the Isle, the Sisters brought to life Catherine’s great love for music and song as they entertained us whilst we were enjoying our “good cup of tea” and scones. Unfortunately our repertoire of English songs did not match the Irish melodies!

Catherine was indeed a “Sister of Divine Providence” as Dr Murphy, Bishop of Cork, said of her. St Maries of the Isle was the home of Sister Angela Bolster who began promoting the Cause for Canonisation of Catherine until her death in 2005. The Sisters provided each of us with an envelope containing Sisters Angela’s last writing on the Cause for Canonisation – “Odyssey of Mercy – showing how Catherine McAuley lived a life of many dimensions on the flat canvas of 18th and 19th century Dublin.” Today Sisters are engaged in a variety of different ministries in the city.

Charleville: From St Maries of the Isle we headed towards Charleville. On 29th October 1836 Catherine arrived in Charleville with Sisters Angela Dunne, Joseph Delaney and Elizabeth Hynes. In pre-famine times, the people of Charleville, suffered great poverty. Some of the more prosperous wished to improve their situation and among them was Miss Mary Clanchy. One of the ways of improving life in the area was to invite a religious congregation to the town. The Bishop of the Diocese of Cloyne, Dr. Crotty, made a formal request of Catherine to send some of her Sisters and she agreed to establish a foundation. As with all early foundations of Catherine, Charleville had Mary Clanchy as a local benefactress who was willing to give a house and £500.00 towards the foundation.

The house proved very damp and Sister Angela Dunne, fearing for the health of the Sisters, asked Catherine to close the foundation. However one day while the Sisters visited the very poor in the laneways a woman stood at her door and said that it was "God himself that drove ye in among us". This convinced Catherine of the need for the Sisters to remain in Charleville. A new Convent was opened in 1839. Catherine wrote: "Charleville has hitherto been a sick branch, but it will be a strong one yet."

The Sisters became involved in education and gave religious instruction in a local national school. Visits were made to the sick and the poor in their homes, while others came to the Convent for help. Today Sisters continue their work in education, health care and parish work.

The highlight of the visit was the Heritage Centre. We were amazed at the extent of the story of the Sisters presence in the South of Ireland. The displays on the corridor and in what was originally the Chapel, told the story of how Mercy spread in this part of Ireland, in the Philippines, South America and Africa. It was a beautiful sensitive presentation of their archives in keeping alive the story of Mercy.

Limerick: On the 24th of September 1838, Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, Catherine at the request of Most Reverend John Ryan, Bishop of Limerick, arrived in Limerick to establish the congregation in St Mary's Parish, in the old end of the city. Since 1812 The Poor Clare Sisters had been serving the people in their need but due to deaths and difficulties only two now remained. At their request these Sisters were affiliated to the Mercy Congregation and the Convent formerly used by them was available for the new foundation. The gate to the original Convent in Limerick is the only relic of the past. A painting depicts Catherine and her Sisters coming through the gate and being met by The Poor Clare Sisters carrying lighted candles. We attended Mass in St Mary’s Church where Catherine would have worshipped. We were warmly welcomed by the Priests of the Parish who spoke eloquently of the Sisters – past and present – and their ministry.

Galway: On 6th May 1840 Catherine herself accompanied two Sisters – Sisters Teresa White and Catherine Leahy - to establish a foundation in Galway. They travelled by canal to Tullamore and next day proceeded to Ballinasloe along the canal and from there to Loughrea by long car. They passed the night at the Carmelite Convent and next day arrived in Galway. Initially they occupied a house in Lombard Street and immediately found scope for their works of mercy. Cholera and typhus were rampant. The Sisters were invited to Galway to care for the poor, the orphans and the uneducated.

According to the census of 1841 there were 8,267 adults who could neither read nor write in Galway, and Fr. Daly described his parish thus: "The houses in my parish are going to decay, for want of trade and commerce in the town… There is a change for the worse in the clothing, feeding and habitations of the people." There had been a famine in the 1820s and it was to come again in the 1840s. That was the city that the Sisters of Mercy came to in 1840. A number of postulants soon joined them and as well as tending the sick in their homes and hospitals, they visited the jail, taught adults in Sunday School and set up schools for children. In 1842 the Convent was transferred to St. Vincent's, where with major renovations and rebuilding it still survives today. In 1851 they took charge of a Widows' and Orphans' asylum, and on the death of Miss Lynch, who had founded the Magdalen Asylum, they took charge of the Magdalen Home. The Sisters continue their apostolic works to the people of today.

As we listened to the poem written by Catherine to the Sisters at Baggot Street in 1840, describing their journey to the Galway foundation, the only description of their journey, we were deeply appreciative of our comfortable mode of travel – so comfortable that the Rolls Royce of travel often lulled us to sleep and we were grateful that we didn’t have to find someone to change a wheel!

In the usual Mercy hospitality, we were greeted warmly by the Community. As in so many instances, many of us made immediate connections with Sisters who were former teachers, those who had visited Convents in England, marriage connections. We learnt of the skills of so many Sisters like the Sisters who made a beautifully carved side board and one who designed a tunnel under a road to connect the Convent and School!

Birr: The Parish Priest, Fr John Spain, invited Catherine to make a foundation in Birr. He hoped that the Sisters would be a healing presence in the parish, which was in the throes of the Crotty schism. On the 26th December 1840 Catherine and four companions set out for Birr. They travelled to Tullamore by canal and spent the night there. Next day they journeyed by coach to Birr, breaking their journey in Eglish, where they were met by Father Spain. On New Year's Day the Sisters attended Mass in the local church. They renewed their vows and were presented to the Congregation by Fr Spain in the following words:

"My dear people, I have a present to make to you ... I present to
you the Sisters of Mercy, who by their example and pious instruction
will draw upon our town the blessing of heaven."

The Convent in Birr was Catherine's last Irish foundation and Catherine often referred to it as her last grandchild.

It was our privilege to meet Sister Anne Hannon who is the vice postulator of the Cause for the Canonization of Catherine. Prayers are requested for confirmation of a miracle through Catherine’s intercession. A Diocesan Tribunal will be set up in Boston to investigate a miracle cure of a young man from a cancerous tumour attributed to Catherine’s intercession and the findings will be sent to Rome.

Tullamore: The first foundation made from Baggot Street was in Tullamore on 21st April 1836. The invitation to establish the first Convent of Mercy outside Dublin came from the town of Tullamore. Sister Mary Ann Doyle, companion of Mother Catherine, and a novice, Sister Teresa Purcell, made the first foundation in 1836. Tullamore was chosen as it suffered severe poverty. "If we don't take Tullamore, no other community will," she declared, relying as usual on her Provident God to prosper the work and provide for the Sisters. She would in all cases remain with the new foundation for its first month, assisting in the establishment of the ministry and leading the thirty days of prayer. Another custom begun in Tullamore was the holding of a public profession ceremony to introduce the public to the work and vocation of the order, and to inspire other young women to join them in their efforts.

Though there is nothing left of the original Convent in Tullamore, it was moving to stand on the exact spot on the Royal Canal where Catherine disembarked with her small group of Sisters. This was also the spot where she arrived for the Birr foundation.

Dun Laoghaire: On the 24th March 1835, the first Sisters of Mercy came to live in Kingstown, now known as Dun Laoghaire. Catherine opened the Convent for the benefit of the health of the Sisters. She became alarmed by the many deaths among the first Sisters. Tuberculosis was rampant at that time and many of the early Sisters fell ill. The idea of a change of air for the sick Sisters occurred to her or was put to her by the doctors who had to be called on so frequently at Baggot Street. A roomy house was purchased and the first foundation from Baggot Street was made. The Sisters set out to establish a school there for the poor children of the area.

It was fitting that Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown) was the last house visited before concluding our pilgrimage at Mercy International Centre. Here at Kingstown Catherine stopped to rest before completing the final stage of her journey from Birmingham to Baggot Street. As in all our “tripping about “ we were truly welcomed with a Cead Mile Failte. Tribute was paid not only to Catherine but to the early Sisters who had sacrificed much to help make Catherine’s dream a reality.

"God knows, I would rather be poor and hungry than that the poor of Kingstown or anywhere else should be deprived of any consolation in your power to offer them."

Mercy International Centre, Baggot Street: On the 24th September 1827, Catherine established a House of Mercy in Baggot Street, Dublin. There she and her companions provided food, clothing, hospitality and education for many of Dublin's poor. In 1831, in order to ensure the continuance of her work, she founded the Sisters of Mercy, and the House of Mercy became her first Convent.

The Convent was fully restored in 1994 and opened to the public. It became the International Centre for the Sisters of Mercy. It now represents the organization's origins, its important historical links with the past, and its activities in communities around the world. More significantly, it retains so much of the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy and their great efforts to bring solace to the poor and sick.

The Heritage Room displays some of the fantastic works of the Sisters, including the illuminated Manuscripts of Sister Clare Augustine Moore. The collection of a relatively unknown artist is one of the finest examples of the medieval traditions of illuminations done in 19th century Ireland. The archival holdings and artefacts including Catherine’s Profession Ring, date from the 1800s. It contains records of all the Sisters of Mercy, along with concise biographical details. It displays some of the remarkable stories of the Sisters around the world. They include everything from working with Florence Nightingale to the many amazing individuals who made up the global community of the Sisters of Mercy.

The visit to each of the foundations was unique and special. Everything we had read and heard about was brought to life by our visit to these early foundations.

In each place we were warmly welcomed and constantly reminded of the Hospitality - the hallmark of the Sisters of Mercy - which was fundamental to Catherine’s ideal of Mercy.

"We have one solid comfort
amidst this little tripping about,
our hearts can always be in the same place,
for whom alone we go forward or stay back."
Venerable Catherine McAuley

Sisters Margarita Cunningham, Angela Moroney and Marian Kennedy (Associate)

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